by Tom Greggs.
We live in an age in which our identities shape so much of our engagement with the world. Even covid-19 seems to differentiate in relation to identity with certain groups being more liable to contract it in a dangerous way than others—groups, indeed, not based on any medical conditions but on other factors of identity (such as gender and race) or else in terms of material wealth and social privilege.
The fight for personal privileging at the expense of the other is as old as humanity itself.[i] Indeed, the fall narrative indicates a horizontal fall (in relation to the self-preservation of the individual over and against the other) even before a vertical one: humans fall in relation to each other before they fall (narrativally) in relation to God. Humans become ashamed of each other (Gen 3:8-10) and they divert blame from each other (Gen 3:12,14). They become prepared to sacrifice the other for the sake of their own privilege: ‘It wasn’t me, God, but Eve – the woman you gave me,’ says Adam, while Eve diverts the blame to another creature in the garden (the serpent).
In salvation, through Christ and the ongoing work of the Spirit, we are put right with one another as well as with God. Rather than privileging each of themselves, the early church was called to hold all things in common, and to privilege the widow and the orphan (Acts 2:44-45, 4:34-35; 1 Tim 5:3; Jas 1:27 cf. Deut 10:18, 15:4; Ps 146:9). And in salvation we are told the differences we have are rendered subservient to the most profound identity we share in Christ (Gal 3:28).
In baptism, we lose our old identities of privilege and hierarchy, and discover who we are in relation to one another in Jesus. To deny this on any side or to fail to uphold it in any way is to deny the gospel, to deny our baptism, to deny who we are in Christ and who the Spirit is making us in redemption. Indeed, it is not just the case that there is no longer ‘slave’ in Christ, but there is also no longer ‘free’ (Gal. 3:28): to be in Christ abolishes that way of being ‘free’ that requires somebody else to be a slave. To be in Christ abolishes, we might say, a competitive polity of privilege.
We need to rethink in radical ways what it is to find a fundamental identity in Christ which undermines social, material and relational injustice, transforming not only the sense of who we are, but the very practice of our humanity in the communities of which we are a part. This is not a psychological fulfilment of inclusion but a practical and living practice of belonging: we belong fundamentally to Christ in whom the privileged find themselves often outcasts and the outcasts find themselves privileged.
Put personally, I am not foundationally male or white or from a working-class background, any more than I am foundationally a person with black hair (in fact, it’s greying). No! I may well be shaped inevitably by all these identities, but I am foundationally and fundamentally made in the image of God, a participant in Christ, a child of God, a human who shares Christ’s humanity, a Christian baptised by water and the Spirit. All other markers count as nothing in relation to this high calling and high identity: at best, these identities subsist in the identity I have in Christ. This asymmetry of the fundamental and the subsistent should shape my theology and my method, but more profoundly my life, my ethics, my discipleship. It is not the privileging, then, of those like me (whoever that ‘me’ is!) which is should be my concern in my dealings with society, but the reality of encountering the gospel and its absolute claim on my life through the resurrected Jesus and the power of the Spirit. This absolute claim involves a transformation of my patterns of life and behaviour, my sense of who I am, and my desire for a piece of the privilege pie.
It is not only our identities which we must consider in relation to these matters, but also issues which are more broadly social and economic: social sin and evil, including structural injustice, poverty and vast material inequality. Scripture does not consider justice to be about fighting for a piece of the privilege pie for me or those like ‘me’. Instead, Scripture repeatedly talks prophetically about issues of justice, of righting injustice, and of finding God in the outcast, the least and the last. Meanwhile, those who presume their place of privilege and fight for it (as the Pharisees and Sadducees did – Mt 23:6; Lk 11:43) find themselves in a very precarious place. The Prophets resound with calls for justice and care for the poor and the needy. In comparison even to liturgical worship, the God of Hebrews (of the Hapirus, the slaves) calls forth for justice, and it is God’s call we should heed in our divided world, especially at this time of crisis, as we hear Christ encounter us as the Great Prophet echoing the words of His predecessors:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-4)
[i] I have discussed this in other places at length before: most notably, my overly large Dogmatic Ecclesiology Vol 1: The Priestly Catholicity of the Church, but also my more digestible The Breadth of Salvation and even on this forum before.